Title: Letters to a Young Contrarian
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Publisher: Basic Books
Date Read: January 14, 2013
Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10
My Rating: 8.5 / 10
Christopher Hitchens’ (1949 – 2011) Letters to a Young Contrarian is one of many publications in the Art of Mentoring series from Basic Books (Other entries include Letters to a Young Therapist by Mary Pipher and Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel.). Hitchens is probably known to most for his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and his public debates and discourse with prominent religious figures. While his spirituality, or notable lack thereof, is discussed in Letters to a Young Contrarian, the guidance he provides can be absorbed by any reader, religious or otherwise.
Each entry in the book is, as you would guess, a letter, written to “My Dear X,” and serves as Hitchens’ participation in a dialogue between him and his addressee. Although he does respond to specific inquiries, the discourse typically follows the thought process that the reader assumes. The letters consist primarily of Hitchens’ advice on how the reader can come to his or her own conclusions on a variety of issues, whether they be political, social, or religious. He advocates standing in opposition to – if not authority, then – the rank and file conception of standardized institutions (So much so that he spends pages comically musing on what to exactly call his ideal individual before settling on “contrarian.” “Dissenter,” “bad boy,” “curmudgeon,” “oppositionist,” and my favorite “professional nay-sayer.).
While Hitchens does provide clear cut advice, most of his mentoring comes in the way of anecdotes and references to other prominent figures, spanning from Aldous Huxley to Oscar Wilde to Thomas Paine. Hitchens explains how he came to his own opinion on numerous matters seemingly with the hope that his “Dear X,” or the reader, will come to his own conclusions through his own observation and analysis. Almost in a way reminiscent of Emerson, he promotes the reader to think independently, but details his own position so well that the reader is hard pressed to disagree with him, despite his opinions being significantly polarizing, especially when he approaches religion. However, Hitchens explicitly desires that the way of thinking of a dissenter is the goal of his guidance, as opposed to providing the specific perspective the reader should assume. In my opinion, he fulfills this desire which allows the reader to feel empowered and more convicted in his or her beliefs.
In light of beliefs, Hitchens’ arguments regarding religion are worth pointing out. Christopher Hitchens was, if you haven’t already presumed or previously known, a very prominent atheist, and he explains his contention with established religion, specifically Christianity, in his letters. While his position may be unsettling to the faithful (I mean, he does make the claim that Mother Teresa was a malevolent and uncharitable person, among with criticism in similar veins in his letters, books, and debates.), do not be deterred. He explains his position in a well mannered way instead of the confrontational and hostile methods seen in his other works, both written and oral. After all, Hitchens would welcome the idea of his reader disagreeing with him, if he so desires to, on the presumption that the individual reached his perspective through his own inquiry and is capable of arguing in favor of his own opinion.
“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, not something you do.”
“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”